Stories from the field shape understandings of what makes a ‘good’ ECEC leader
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Stories from the field shape understandings of what makes a ‘good’ ECEC leader

by Freya Lucas

July 04, 2022

The early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector has been in the national spotlight of late. From the landmark announcement of universal preschool access in New South Wales and Victoria, to issues of affordability and access, along with the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and an ongoing workforce crisis, ECEC is undergoing a period of intense public debate in Australia.

 

Leaders in the sector who are navigating teams through such times need no introduction to the idea that leadership in this sector is complex and multifaceted.

 

While in many other sectors methodologies and styles of leadership can be applied to workplace issues, the nuances of ECEC with its presently unstable and undervalued workforce and its regulatory complexities mean that leadership in this space is not easily pigeonholed. 

 

Leaders are acutely aware of the difficulties in working across diverse contexts with diverse groups of people while navigating periods of political change alongside an unprecedented workforce crisis. 

 

Against such a backdrop it has never been more important to seek new ways of understanding the experiences of those who are currently leading the sector. 

 

In the piece below, ACU’s Dr Marie White unpacks her PhD research project, borne from her experience of more than 20 years in the sector, primarily working in community kindergartens as a teacher and a director.

 

Intentional and deliberate research focus

 

During Dr White’s time in the sector ECEC experienced almost constant change, from the introduction of the National Quality Framework and the associated assessment and rating regime to the unfolding ECEC workforce crisis and the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

As a result of her own experiences, and with a drive to understand more deeply the experiences of others, Dr White undertook her PhD with the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) working closely with leaders in early childhood education to investigate the question of how leaders in ECEC produce understandings of ‘good’ leadership.

 

“The research question was intentional and deliberate,” she began. 

“The intention of this project was not to produce more of the same. I was not interested in finding or creating more models or styles of leadership or categorising leadership according to pre-existing understandings.” 

Searching for neat and tidy solutions to complex ideas like ECEC leadership, she continued, would be troublesome. 

 

“To get different answers, you need to ask different questions.” 

 

Tangly questions need innovative approaches

 

In pursuing new and perhaps more ‘tangly’ questions about leadership, Dr White sought to understand how it is that early childhood education leaders understand ‘good’ leadership. An attitude of scepticism was adopted to avoid assumptions about what is meant by ‘good’ leadership or ‘good’ leaders. 

 

By turning what are typically standard or assumed practices and perceptions in relation to leadership into “problems” new and unexpected understandings of good leadership began to emerge. 

 

To reach her findings, Dr White was inspired by a method known as collective biography (Davies & Gannon, 2006), an innovative research strategy that draws on shared memories as research data. 

 

Participants were asked to draw on their memories to share stories of their own leadership, leaders they remembered, and really tough times in their own leadership journeys. 

“Remembering a time when a parent called you a despicable person or a time when your teaching partner left without notice or a time when your colleagues seemed to be working against you produced rich and evocative data,” she shared. 

“The stories generated will, I’m sure, resonate with similar experiences that all leaders in ECEC may have had at some point.”

 

What does it mean to be a ‘good’ leader in ECEC?

 

It turns out that ‘good’ leadership in ECEC is not as simple as it seems.

 

“The memories of leadership shared by participants were rich, deep and evocative,” Dr White said. 

“Their stories spoke to the complexity of work in ECEC. One of the most striking features was how participants spoke about ‘good’ leadership in differing ways depending on who their leadership was in relation to.”

The diverse contexts of leadership within ECEC – be it educator to parent, leader to more senior leader, or leader to external authority – meant that the experiences of the participants were rarely neat or simple. 

 

Instead a common thread emerged, where leaders noted that at heart, leadership in ECEC is both complex and messy. 

 

Being open to contradictions

 

‘Good’ leadership was often spoken through seemingly contradictory ideas or discourses. 

 

For example, partnerships with parents (a fundamental aspect in ECEC) is typically characterised by notions of warm and friendly agreeableness. At the same time, being a ‘good’ leader is understood through behaviours such as assertion and decisiveness. 

 

As participants shared their memories of leadership with Dr White, they often grappled with the contradictions that were present. To deal with these contradictions, she took a different tact, where instead of trying to “untangle” the contradictions, Dr White used a  method of ironic thinking (Rorty, 1989) to hold them together. 

 

Leaning in to contradictions

 

This method produced new ways of thinking about ‘good’ early childhood leadership by generating ironic categories. 

 

One ironic category that captured and held together seemingly contradictory ideas for example, was ‘forceful collaboration’. The participants spoke of leadership in relation to parents as involving aspects of being both direct and assertive, or forceful, yet at the same time, needing to be warm, friendly and collaborative. 

 

Ironic thinking offered a fun and playful way to generate new thinking about what it means to be a ‘good’ leader by holding ideas, like being both forceful and collaborative, together in ways that otherwise would not seem possible. 

“This research did not seek to smooth out the wrinkles produced by moments of dis-ease or in the spaces where ideas seem to clash,” Dr White explained. 

“Instead, I looked to find sense in the contradictions, and to offer new ways of thinking about what it means to be a ‘good’ early childhood leader.” 

 

“Finding new ways of understanding the complex work of leaders in ECEC through their own stories is key to generating rich understandings from within the field that can offer much to the growing scholarship of leadership in ECEC.” 

 

To read more stories of early childhood leadership, you can access Dr White’s work here. 

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